Keeping Score

How Sports Can Forecast the Presidential Election

What LSU-Alabama, the Washington Redskins, and the presence of the word "Big" in the conference affiliation of the NCAA men's hoop champ - yes, the presence of the word "Big" in the conference affiliation of the NCAA men's hoops champ -- says about the candidates' chances.

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image: University of Alabama quarterback TC McCarney runs for a first down past Louisiana State University cornerback Patrick Peterson in Baton Rouge, La., Nov. 6, 2010.
Sean Gardner / Reuters

University of Alabama quarterback TC McCarney runs for a first down past Louisiana State University cornerback Patrick Peterson in Baton Rouge, La., Nov. 6, 2010. In recent presidential election years, the winner of Alabama-LSU has a connection to the ballot-box victor.

Every presidential election season, we hear about all sorts of factors that can predict the winner. There’s the stock market, for example, as Kiplinger notes:

Jim Stack, editor of InvesTech Research, an investment newsletter, has crunched the numbers. His findings? Since 1900, the direction of stock prices in the two months prior to Election Day has predicted the winner 89.3% of the time. “A rising stock market indicates an improving economy, which means rising confidence and increases the chance of an incumbent’s reelection,” he says.

Even the market’s bad calls were in years when the market didn’t move much in the two months before Election Day. In the three elections during which the indicator failed, the Dow Jones industrial average moved 3.1% or less during the two-month period.

Or there are the kiddies. Via the Washington Times:

Since 1940, Scholastic magazine has relied on kids to tell us who will be the next president. The kids have been right 16 out of the last 18 times. Between August 15 and October 10, nearly 250,000 children under 18 from across the country voted for whom they wanted as president in a survey conducted by Scholastic magazine and 51% of the kids picked Obama, 45% Romney and 4% other. Even kids in swing states pinpointed Obama the winner.  Prediction: Obama

And sports, it turns out, is also a crystal ball. USA Today’s Paul Myberg has compiled a few examples of sports results predicting the next president. The most interesting one, ahead of Saturday’s big Alabama-LSU college football grudge match, is that since 1984, LSU won in years when Republicans were elected. Meanwhile, an Alabama victory bodes well for the Democrats. The results:

1984: LSU 16, Alabama 14. Ronald Reagan (R) demolishes Walter Mondale (D).

1988: LSU 19, Alabama 18. George H.W. Bush (R) defeats Michael Dukakis (D).

1992: Alabama 31, LSU 11. Bill Clinton (D) defeats George H.W. Bush (R).

1996: Alabama 26, LSU 0. Clinton (D) defeats Bob Dole (R).

2000: LSU 30, Alabama 28. George W. Bush (R) defeats Al Gore (D).

2004: LSU 26, Alabama 10. George W. Bush (R) defeats John Kerry (D).

2008: Alabama 27, LSU 21. Barack Obama (D) defeats John McCain (R).

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Myberg calls Alabama-LSU the “weakest of three sports-related barometers.” I’m not sure I agree with him: seven in a row, that’s quite a streak. The other two have a longer history, though they’ve encountered recent hiccups.

The first involves the Washington Redskins’ final home game before an election, beginning in 1936. If the Redskins won that game, the incumbent party would retain the White House.

That held true for 16 elections in a row, from 1936-2000. In 2004, however, the Redskins lost at home (of course they did) two days before George W. Bush was re-elected to the White House.

But the trend returned in 2008, when the Redskins lost at home to the Steelers (obviously) in advance of Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain.

A second election trend involves the Los Angeles Lakers. Until 2008, every time the Lakers reached the NBA Finals during an election year (eight times from 1952-2004) a Republican took the White House. This streak was snapped four years ago, when the Lakers met the Celtics in the finals but Obama beat McCain.

I spent a little time trying to spot my own sports predictors. Any time doing this, actually, is probably too much time. But I found something that political statistician Nate Silver will surely factor into his latest projections.

In seven of the last eight elections, if the NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball champion is affiliated with a conference featuring the word “Big” in its title, a Republican wins the presidency. Otherwise, a Democrat wins. Check it out:

1980: Louisville (Big East. Reagan (R) wins. Yes, I know Louisville wasn’t in the Big East at the time. But work with me here).

1984: Georgetown (Big East. A Reagan repeat)

1988: Kansas (Big 12, George H.W. Bush (R). How can the GOP hate Big government?)

1992: Duke (Atlantic Coast Conference. No Big. And no Republican — Clinton wins. It’s the conference name, stupid)

1996: Kentucky (Southeastern Conference. Clinton re-elected)

2000: Michigan State (Big 10. Any wonder why George W. Bush won the recount? Gore’s still bitter about Florida. No, not the state with the hanging chads. The school – from the SEC – that lost to the Spartans in that year’s hoops final)

2004: UConn (Big East. Four more years for W).

2008: Kansas (Big 12. Obama. The lone outlier)

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Yeah, it’s a bummer that this pattern didn’t hold for the most recent election. If only Memphis (Conference USA) made its free throws down the stretch of that ’08 title game. This year, Kentucky, from the SEC, won the national title. So playing the percentages from the last eight elections, Obama is a good bet. Though his personal history suggests he wants a Big.

This one may be too muddled. So I suggest honing in on the Alabama-LSU game. If you bleed blue state, cheer for the Crimson Tide, who, maybe not so incidentally, are favored by eight points, and are the top-ranked team in the country. (LSU is No. 5). If Romney is your guy, pull for LSU.

Because the outcome of this game will decide the election, for sure.

(P.S. Got any more ridiculous sports indicators of the outcome of the presidential election? Feel free to include them in the comments below.)

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